RFP Deep Dive: Grant and RFP 201
For proprietors of transit agencies that have chosen public funding and/or grants as their revenue source, doing thorough research has never been more important. While the NEMT and paratransit fields continue to experience steady growth, the number of organizations competing for transit funding dollars and grants has gown too. This means that in order to win funds, your applications need to demonstrate an understanding of the entire process, as well as comply with sometimes-complex rules and processes set down by the funders.
Don’t go to bat for a grant until you fully understand the process and the various components of the grant itself—including the critical Request for Proposal, or RFP.
What is an RFP?
Before the organization or foundation funding the grant starts accepting applications, they first post an important document known as a Request for Proposal, or RFP. Why is this document so critical? Simply put, your ability to demonstrate a complete understanding of the RFP for the funding you’re seeking will make or break your grant application.
What is an RFI?
Although this article is primarily about RFPs, RFIs are an important precursor that is often treated as a sort of “pre-screen” for qualified applicants. When an agency decides it is going to fund a service or project, a Request for Information (RFI) is often written up as the first part of the process.
The goal of an RFI is generally to produce a pool of qualified candidates for the project or service to be funded. This means that RFIs are typically shorter than an RFP but will include questions about the size of the agency applying for funding, current operating capacity and capabilities, and other details about your business’s operations. Since the RFI can often be the first “hoop” of the process, take it as seriously as you would the grant itself. Your response will be used by the funding organization to determine whether to even take you into consideration for the actual project or service being funded.
If you’re considering applying for funding, an RFI serves another purpose. It essentially allows you to determine if the funder’s needs are right for your organization. Since an RFI will provide some general parameters of the project, you can use it to figure out if you in fact do have the capacity to provide the service they are looking for. If it’s a mismatch, at least you didn’t waste time filling out applications for a service or project that you would have been unqualified or otherwise incapable of fulfilling.
What is in an RFP?
The way an RFP is written will say a lot about the sponsoring organization. It should be thorough, but with clear language so that the objective is easy to understand. Most RFPs typically include:
- A history of the organization
- More detail than the RFI when it comes to the project funding is being provided for. This information should include why the project is needed, along with what outcome is desired
- A discussion of how the funder anticipates evaluating the success of the project
- Complete information on the project’s budget
- Detailed timelines, benchmarks, and/or milestones that the organization who receives the funding will need to meet
- Additional details about the applicant that aren’t included in the RFI
- Practical details like submission guidelines and contact information
RFI/RFP Red Flags
Writing an RFI and/or RFP response will require a significant investment of time on the behalf of your transit organization. While the RFI especially will give you an idea about whether or not you’re cut out to enter a bid, there are several things to watch out for—even if you’re sure you’d qualify for the funding.
Too much or too little detail. You don’t need a novel on the history of the business that is providing the funding. There should be enough detail to provide context to the project that needs funding; no more and no less. If the RFP spends the majority of its space on the company’s history rather than clearly outlining what needs to be done, the funder is showing that it cares more about its own needs than building a successful partnership with the organization receiving the funding.
Incongruent explanations. If the RFP does not keep to a clear, linear description of the project that needs funding, milestones for evaluation, and budget information, consider bowing out. The organization providing the RFP could be hard to work with, as demonstrated by the fact that they gave the green light to an RFP whose central purpose looks unclear.
Confusing organizational or staffing requirements. Many RFPs will specify industry-specific team structures or number of staff needed. Are these reasonably in-line with the way your organization currently runs itself? If the RFP demands that there be a person in a completely unnecessary position, are you willing to bite the bullet and comply?
On the other hand, some RFPs may have vague statements about organizational or staffing requirements—the kind that makes it impossible to tell what the funder actually wants. It will be hard to get successful project evaluations if you have no idea what the funder wants. Just like the detail point, there is a “sweet spot” of information where the RFP will specify any staffing best practices but leave the details to you, the expert.
Winning the RFP Process
The most important part of writing an RFP response that stands out is organization. Before you even start, you need to have a complete understanding of where every aspect of your transit organization or agency stands. You need to have plans for in-house periodic performance evaluations for everyone; you need to have a plan for growing and excelling in your industry. This includes understanding the basic finances of your competition, including having a grasp on how competitive your bid is.
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Finally, your RFP response should have a strong central thread: you really are the best candidate for the funding. It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees when it comes to filling out reams of paperwork, but keep your central message in mind through every step of the process. Confidence, a polished presentation, and a strong narrative will all pay off down the road.